In the past week, authorities have arrested two Mexicans for tweeting false rumors of shootouts at local schools and charged them with terrorism, a man has been brought to court by the FBI for cyberstalking and harassment of a Buddhist leader on Twitter, and a college student in Des Moines was arrested for a fake Twitter bomb threat on his school.
There’s a battle going on right now between free speech advocate and the authorities over what constitutes terrorism, harassment and defamation on Twitter. In a spate of recent cases across the world, Twitter is being put to the test – is it a vehicle for private thought? Or a public forum which can be manipulated?
In the case of the Mexican Twitter users falsely claiming there was a shootout at local schools, Amnesty International has stepped in and said that their detainment is “unfair and violates their right to justice and freedom of expression”. They are currently being held on terrorism and sabotage charges, although they claim they were merely resenting information that was already circulating on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks.
The cyberstalker currently facing criminal charges brought by the FBI has sent over 8,000 tweets to a Buddhist leader with whom he had a falling out, many telling her to go kill herself and including other thinly veiled threats. He is being supported by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which claims that, “While not all speech is protected by the First Amendment, the idea that the courts must police every inflammatory word spoken online not only chills freedom of speech but is unsupported by decades of First Amendment jurisprudence”.
And the student who tweeted a bomb threat (“Who wants to shoot up the DMACC Ankeny campus the same time I shoot up the Urban campus?”) has said it was only meant as a joke, but remains charged with first-degree harassment.
These three cases exemplify the ways in which Twitter is forcing the law to adapt to a new form of communication.
In all three cases, part of the problem is identifying whether the tweets in question were public or private. Harassment, in the second and third cases, is usually a private communication between two or more individuals, not a public statement. But causing a public panic, or inciting terror, like in the first case, requires a more public forum.
Intention is also difficult to measure on Twitter. People are only given 140 characters to work with, so it has thus far been difficult for authorities to determine whether a tweet was a “joke” as the defendant in the third case claims, simply an innocent passing along of information, as the defendants in the first case claim, or malicious.
And lastly, there is the issue of free speech. If Twitter is a public forum, people should have a reasonable expectation of free speech. However, if it is private, they must be restrained from harassing others.
These three cases, and others around the world, are worth watching for any Twitter user, as they are going to help the legal system define just what Twitter is, and put limits on how it may or may not be used in the future.